Minarets and Steeples: Can France Balance Them?


Published: October 1, 2003


CERGY LE HAUT, France — Hamida Maiga looks out over a

green field ringed by white suburban houses and

low-rise apartment blocks here, and imagines the

spires of a mosque's minarets rising above it all.

"Our one condition is that it look like a mosque so

that people, when they drive by, will know what it

is," he says, standing with two other members of the

town's new Muslim Federation, which hopes to build an

Islamic center on the site.

That modest wish is a radical aspiration in a country

where stone churches are the central architectural

statement in almost all cities and towns, and

Christianity so permeates the culture that, for most

French, it is an assumed part of the national


While people here have grudgingly accepted a growing

Muslim presence in their midst, many still resent

displays of religious and cultural symbols suggesting

that the country's second largest and fastest growing

religion is here to stay.

But as the country's first major wave of Muslim

immigrants retire and their French-born children come

of age, the largest Islamic community in Europe is

pushing for the social and religious institutions that

it believes are its due.

In so doing, they have pushed right up against the

French tradition that dictates by law a strict

separation of church and state and the celebration of

secular values. It is a tussle that is going on in

various degrees across Europe: this month, Germany's

highest court ended a long legal battle there by

ruling that an Afghan-born Muslim teacher could not be

forbidden to wear a head scarf in school. But the

ruling left a loophole that may allow individual

German states to pass laws expressly forbidding head

scarves in schools.

In France, Muslim leaders have called for paid days

off on Islamic holidays and the appointment of Muslim

chaplains in hospitals, prisons and the military. At

least two French cities now cater to Muslim women with

female-only hours at public swimming pools.

Building mosques is highest on the Muslim agenda, both

because of a physical need and a desire to demonstrate

that the religion has incontestably arrived.

"Islam is a religion that is rising and is very

strong, and that causes fear," said Zeinoul Abidine

Daffe, a Senegalese who, in his tweed jacket and

glasses, looks like a college professor. Mr. Daffe and

Mr. Maiga, a native of Mali, have both spent the

better part of their adult lives in France.

For 20 years, they and most of France's five million

Muslims made do with tiny prayer rooms — often in the

basements of buildings. Cergy's Muslims worship in a

town gymnasium put at their disposal once a week.

There are already more than 1,500 mosques and Muslim

prayer rooms in France, but only a handful have domes

or minarets because local governments consider such

identifying details unnecessarily ostentatious, even


Now, dozens of mosque projects are making slow

progress through France's formidable bureaucracy, and

at least 10 of the planned buildings will be

architecturally recognizable as mosques, with domes or

minarets or both.

The Cergy mosque, still at least two years from

realization, has already excited passions and led one

local opposition politician to warn that its minarets

might rise higher than the town's church steeples. The

comment won the town national attention: the

conservative newspaper Le Figaro ran a cartoon of a

priest and an imam cranking up the towers on their

respective houses of worship, each trying to top the


In fact, there has been no decision yet on whether or

not the mosque will have minarets, though the town's

Muslim leaders clearly want them. Instead, opposition

to the mosque has focused on technical details — that

it will clog traffic in the neighborhood, for example.

"A big mosque can change the silhouette of a

neighborhood and the character of a town," said

Jean-Marie Chaussonnière, a white-haired Cergy lawyer

who has emerged as the most vocal critic. "I'm afraid

it will only invite extremists."

Mr. Chaussonnière argues that taxpayers' money

shouldn't be spent to support the construction of a


"This isn't our patrimony," he said over lunch at a

local Laotian restaurant. "I don't want to pay for

women to wear burkas."

Cergy's Muslims failed for 20 years to win local

government support for a mosque and had threatened to

protest by holding Friday Prayer outside the town

hall. Their luck changed when the current mayor,

Dominique Lefèbvre, won the 2000 elections with a slim

majority, the left's strongest mandate in the town's


He set about addressing the Muslim concerns, promising

to place the religion on equal footing with

Catholicism in Cergy.

The problem was that Cergy's Muslims lacked means to

build a mosque on a par with the local churches. The

town wanted to keep them from turning for help to

Islamic associations abroad. (Many of Europe's new

mosques have been built with money from the rich

countries of the Persian Gulf, particularly Saudi


To counter the risk of external influence, an

increasing number of towns across France are bending

the laws that prevent government from subsidizing

religious institutions. They are leasing land to

Muslims at nominal cost and subsidizing Muslim

cultural associations that, in turn, administer the

construction and operation of local mosques.

Cergy is doing the same — albeit on condition that the

town's Muslims unite under a single rubric, and sign a

charter pledging allegiance to France's republican


But stiff opposition could yet spoil the Muslims'

plans. A proposed mosque in Sartrouville, eight miles

southeast of Cergy, touched off a heated campaign two

years ago against the "Islamization" of the town.

Muslims there ended up buying an existing building to

house their mosque, which was quickly shut down by the

town for safety violations. It remains closed today.


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